By Tom Peters

A major modernization project at Port Saint John continues to move forward on schedule, says Jim Quinn, President and CEO, Saint John Port Authority (SJPA).

Port Saint John, along with the federal and provincial governments, entered into an agreement in 2016 to undertake a $205 million project to modernize and consolidate its Rodney and Navy Island terminals on the port’s west side to accommodate larger vessels and to enhance the port’s container terminal capabilities. In addition to the expansion and redevelopment of the piers, the project will see the redevelopment of the main container yard, increasing the capacity from 150,000 TEUs to 300,000 TEUs, the addition of on-dock rail capacity, the commencement of the reclamation of slipway and tidal lagoons to create additional land, the relocation of the terminal’s main gate and the introduction of modern technologies to facilitate the flow of traffic cargo, and, finally, the deepening and widening of the port’s main channel.

In the fall of 2019, SJPA called for three major tenders and is engaged in finalizing the last regulatory approvals which would then allow the commencement of work. Quinn said that to date approximately $17 million has been spent on transitional work involving things such as relocation of various conduits and bollards and the reconfiguration of crane rails. He noted that the next step was to move forward with the actual heavy construction anticipated to begin this spring. He said this work will be very visible to the local community and marks the beginning of what will be a very busy year.

As the project moves forward, cargo owners using the port may soon have the option of a second major railway. CP Rail has acquired (subject to government approval) Central Maine & Quebec Railway (CMQ). The acquisition will provide cargo importers and exporters access to ports at Searsport, Maine and Saint John via CP Rail and New Brunswick Southern Railway (NBSR). CN Rail has been the major carrier serving Saint John.

Quinn wouldn’t elaborate on what it would mean for the port to have the CP service but said he is reserving comment until the transaction is official.

Overall, cargo tonnage at the port was up 1 per cent in 2019 to 25.4 million tonnes (MT). Liquid bulk was by far the port’s major commodity, with the J.D. Irving Limited refinery contributing 24.2 million MT to overall volumes. Quinn said that the 4 per cent increase for Irving was significant considering the refinery experienced production disruptions in October 2018 which lasted for several months. Irving was able to get back to full production by mid-2019 and managed to surpass the previous year’s output.

Shipments of potash, though, took a nosedive in 2019 with less than 300,000 MT exported compared to over 1 million MT in 2018. Quinn attributed the decline to “market forces.” He said over 4.4 million hectares of agricultural land in the U.S. was not planted in 2019 because of wet weather which impacted potash sales. Also, two of the world’s largest potash users, India and China, had stockpiled large amounts of potash in 2018 prior to new price negotiations in 2019. However, Quinn expects potash exports to recover this year.

Quinn said the container cargo sector in 2019 has been “a good story” as the port builds its niche in that cargo sector. “In terms of tonnage, we were up 16 per cent last year and in terms of TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) we were up 17 per cent,” he said.

The Port lost approximately half of its container business in January, 2017 when Tropical Shipping Line took its business to Halifax. The port’s peak year for containers prior to Tropical’s departure was 97,000 TEUs. However, with carriers CMA CGM and MSC, Saint John has been recovering steadily and in 2019 handled 69,000 TEUs, up about 19,000 since Tropical’s departure.

The Port’s cruise business enjoyed a very strong year in 2019 with a 24 per cent increase in cruise passengers and a 14 per cent increase in cruise ship calls. “It’s been a very good year from a cruise perspective and it’s shaping up to be even better this year,” said Quinn. The port anticipates a record year in 2020 with more than 90 vessel calls and approximately 217,000 passengers. The record year for cruise activities was 2010 when the port welcomed 205,000 passengers.